To Restore Economic Health, Congress Must Put Children First

Posted November 18, 2008 at 3:38pm

When the 111th Congress convenes in January, it will be faced with the most challenging agenda in recent history. Members of Congress will confront record budget deficits, pressing domestic and international issues, and follow-up to the financial rescue and stimulus packages. These challenges have shaken our country to its core and caused our leaders to sail into uncharted territory.

[IMGCAP(1)]Congress’ first priority will be revitalizing the economy. That’s as it should be. The signs are unambiguous that our nation is in recession, just as our national debt is now well over $10 trillion and the current fiscal year threatens to add as much as $1 trillion more in red ink. But revitalizing our economy requires making sound investments. And our children are the most sound investment of all.

We don’t hear much about America’s children in our national economic debate. But they are intricately connected to the dire economic consequences we face as a nation — and their well-being must be a critical part of the solution.

Today in America there are more than 13 million children living in poverty and 8 million without health insurance. We have the second highest infant mortality rate among industrialized nations. And for the first time in history, a majority of voting Americans believes the next generation will fare worse than their parents. These are terrifying statistics for a country looking to regain its leading position in the global economy.

Nowhere is the failure to invest in our children more evident than in our nation’s dismal high school graduation rate. In the time it takes to read this, several more U.S. teenagers will drop out of high school. A staggering 1.2 million students drop out each year — that’s 7,000 per school day, and one every 26 seconds. For young people of color, the statistics are even more startling. Only about 58 percent of Hispanic students and 55 percent of African-American students will graduate on time with a regular diploma, according to EPE Research Center (2008).

Many say these figures represent a dropout crisis. But when we consider the impact they have on our young people, our families, our communities and our country, it becomes clear that we face more than a crisis. We have a catastrophe.

Students who drop out are more likely to be incarcerated, to rely on public programs and social services and to go without health insurance than their fellow students who graduate. This issue affects us all, and we pay an enormous price tag. According to Alliance for Excellent Education, if the students who dropped out of the class of 2008 had graduated, the nation’s economy would have benefited from an additional $319 billion in income over their lifetimes. Losing more than 1 million students each year weakens our long-term ability to compete in the global marketplace.

When our children are not prepared for success, we are not only failing them, but also our nation. An educated work force is the foundation of a strong and vibrant economy. And without skilled workers, our military, national security infrastructure, and intelligence systems are in jeopardy.

The need for a skilled and educated work force is even more pronounced as we face a massive demographic shift. The first of the baby boomers have already retired, and another 77 million will soon follow. Our economic future will require that we rely on today’s younger generations for human capital. Yet, of the 40 percent of today’s high school graduates who start college, nearly 3 in 10 are immediately placed into a remedial reading, writing or math course because they did not arrive college-ready.

We need our young people to not only stay in school, but also to graduate, be college-ready when they enroll in post-secondary education, and enter the work force with the foundation they need to compete in a global economy. We need to both raise our expectations for what students must know and recruit and retain more effective teachers so that students can reach internationally competitive standards.

Put simply, to move forward as a nation, the 111th Congress must put our children first. This means taking a fresh look at our priorities and ensuring that all children have quality health care, an excellent education and the necessary services to help lift them out of poverty. It means acknowledging that the economic slowdown profoundly affects children, and offering solutions that enable working families to keep their jobs, stay in their homes and prepare children for college, work and life. It means raising awareness of children’s issues and sending a message that our economic future depends on our commitment to investing in our children.

In 1997, I founded America’s Promise Alliance, which my wife, Alma, now chairs. A partnership of nearly 250 organizations, the alliance works to ensure that our young people have the wraparound supports they need to stay in school and succeed. Through the work of our partners, children receive basic resources — or what we call the Five Promises — caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, an effective education and opportunities to help others

Research shows that when children receive at least four of the Five Promises, they are twice as likely to receive A’s in school, twice as likely to avoid violence, and 40 percent more likely to volunteer in their community.

Over the next two years, the America’s Promise Alliance will sponsor more than 100 Dropout Prevention Summits in all 50 states and an additional 55 major cities. With support from State Farm and others, these summits will bring together mayors and governors, business leaders, school administrators, teachers, parents and students, to develop and implement action plans to rejuvenate underperforming schools, and reverse graduation rates that routinely fall below 60 percent. Through initiatives like this — combining resources and working across sectors — we can begin to make a profound impact on the future of this country. But we cannot do this alone. Elected officials need to provide real solutions to the real problems our children face every day.

It is often said that America can weather any economic storm because of the strength, skill and creativity of the work force. I believe this to be true. But with upward of 80 percent of 21st-century jobs requiring some level of post-secondary education, we can weather the storm only if our children receive the support they need to stay in school and succeed in life.

There is no doubt that the new Congress will have more pressing issues on its plate than ever before. We know that resources are limited, and that means we must make wise investments. I believe an investment in our economic future begins with a promise to our children. With high school graduation being a fundamental and leading indicator of success, every Member of Congress, every business leader, and indeed every American must promise to make sure our children are placed on a safe and healthy path that allows them to stay in school and thrive. It is a promise we can’t afford to break.

Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell served as the 65th secretary of State and as the 12th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.